c. Basic Social Systems Theory

Basic Social Systems Theory


The term “Social Systems Theory” has been used to describe the sociologist, Niklas Luhmann’s theory, but the one presented here differs in important respects. In this article I will describe its core principles.

Firstly, we use different terminology in different fields of study, but as can be seen from the table below it is all the same thing really. So, please refer to this table if in any doubt about the meaning of a term.

The Social Systems Concept

The basic framework of social systems theory can be described as follows:

  1. A general system comprises inputs, processes, and outputs. Processes, in turn, comprise components and their interactions. These components are also systems.
  2. Humanity is a social system which follows the same structure and rules as a general system. Its components are organisations. The reader may recall that, in these articles, an organisation is defined as any group of people who work together for a common purpose. Thus, an organisation may be a single individual, a club, a nation, or all of humanity.
  3. The interactions between organisations are the trade of satisfiers and contra-satisfiers between them. The satisfiers and contra-satisfiers traded take the form of information, matter, and energy. In more familiar terms, they comprise raw materials, products or artifacts, services and, as a general token of exchange, money.
  4. The satisfiers exchanged are related to the needs of the organisations concerned which, in general terms, are existence, relatedness and growth.

So, organisations are the elementary entities in social systems theory. At the next level of complexity up, i.e., ecology, the elementary entity is the species. Humanity is one such species and its inputs and outputs are those things that it takes from and gives to the natural ecosystem.  At the next level of complexity down, i.e., biology, the elementary entity it is the organ. The domain of social systems theory lies between these two boundaries.

The most notable aspect of organisational behaviour is its similarity to that of individual people. This is not because organisations have a “group mind”, but rather because every organisation is ultimately led by a single individual, and its specialist activities are also carried out by individuals. There are, however, important variations in the behaviour of both individuals and organisations which depend on their time, place, and size. These common features and the ways in which they vary are summarised below.


The following core principles apply to all organisations no matter what their size, location, or era. They are therefore universal and constant. They will be explained in more detail in future articles and only a simplified summary is given below.

  • Agency. All organisations have agency. They have choices available to them, they process information and act on it.
  • Purpose. All organisations have a purpose or function.
  • Needs. All organisations have needs which when prioritised form a hierarchy.
  • Satisfiers, Contra-satisfiers, and Motivators. Every organisation is affected by these and, together with its knowledge and needs, they influence its behaviour.
  • Inputs, Processes and Outputs. All organisations require inputs to carry out their function, which is to produce outputs. These inputs and outputs comprise materials, services, and/or information. However, information must always form a part.
  • Self-maintenance. All organisations are self-maintaining, i.e., they use a proportion of their inputs in self-maintenance as opposed to producing outputs.
  • Recursiveness. All organisations are recursive. Every organisation, except an individual person, comprises a number of component organisations and is a component of larger organisations.
  • Specialisation. All organisations comprise specialised sub-organisations or individuals. This is commonly known as a division of labour.
  • Co-ordination. All organisations require a control component, i.e., leaders, to co-ordinate specialised activities. This is carried out via an internal feedback loop with information passing upwards and instructions downwards.
  • Culture. Every organisation has a culture comprising values, norms, beliefs, operational knowledge, and symbols.
  • Schemata. Every organisation holds knowledge in schemata which are resistant to change. These include a schema for worldview/purpose, an internal ethical schema, external ethical schema, operating schemata, self-image, etc.
  • Misinformation. All organisations are capable of concealing information from others or supplying misinformation to them.
  • Adaptation. In response to both internal and external change, all organisations adapt their processes, attempt to adapt their environment, or both. Without adaptation, an organisation will eventually fail.
  • Evolution. The laws of evolution apply to organisations of all sizes, i.e., random mutation occurs within them, and natural selection occurs through the way in which they and their environment interact.
  • Inter-organisational Distance. Ultimately, every organisation interacts with every other. In some cases, they interact directly. In others there is no direct interaction. Rather any interaction is via a chain of direct connections.
  • Competition/Co-operation. The choice between co-operation, positive competition and negative competition always applies when one organisation interacts with another.

Some relationships between organisations, and thus, social systems theories, change with size, time, and place. These changes are due to:

  • Availability of Resources. The availability of resources varies from time to time and from place to place. This affects culture, which also then varies in the same way. Culture in turn affects knowledge, the relative priorities of needs, satisfiers, motivators, and attitudes towards relationships, i.e., whether co-operation, positive competition, or negative competition is favoured.
  • Knowledge. This, including knowledge of social systems, is part of an organisation’s culture. Because knowledge is one component affecting behaviour, the latter also alters from place to place. Knowledge can also be gained or lost, and so varies with time. If new knowledge is gained this can alter culture, and thus, social theory. However, progress is not inevitable, shocks can occur, and knowledge can be lost, e.g., the collapse of the Roman Empire and the subsequent Dark Ages. Loss of knowledge can cause an organisation or society to revert to behaviours similar to those of earlier years.
  • Redundancy. The amount of redundancy, i.e., duplicated capability, in an organisation, and thus its resilience, varies depending on factors such as whether an organisation has been designed or has evolved. This includes redundancy of potential command.
  • Size. As organisations increase in size the following characteristics alter and affect their efficiency. The interaction of efficiencies and inefficiencies of scale usually results in an optimum organisational size.
    • Specialisation, Departmentalisation, and the Formalisation of roles generally increase. Departmentalisation is the collection of specialised tasks into groups under a leader. Formalisation is the specification of tasks and the introduction of rules and regulations regarding the way in which they are carried out.
    • Informal Innovation generally decreases.
    • Hierarchy, i.e., the number of levels of command, generally increases.
    • Distance of Intra-organisational Communication, including Leadership Distance and Peer Distance, i.e., the lengths of chains of communication, generally increase, and along with them, the likelihood of communication errors.
    • Decentralisation, i.e., the delegation of power and control, generally becomes increasingly necessary.
    • The relative amount of Self-maintenance or Administration generally increases.
    • Speed of Decision-making generally decreases.
    • Cultural Entrenchment, i.e., the unchangeability or otherwise of an organisation’s culture, generally increases.
    • Cultural Homogeneity, i.e., whether all members of an organisation share a common culture, generally decreases.
    • Frequency of Restructuring, i.e., reorganisation, generally decreases.
    • Social Traffic, i.e., irrelevant communication, generally increases.


The theory of social systems can be used to explain society, but not to predict it with certainty or to design an ideal system. This is because there are approximately seven and a half billion people in the world. So, the vast number of relationships between organisations, including individuals, leads to great complexity. Added to this is the vast number of relationships with the non-human environment. We do not have the mental capacity to understand such complexity. Even if we were able to model the human social system, then our understanding of it would change, and so too would its behaviour. Furthermore, predictability would diminish due to a build-up of un-anticipatable random events. The best we can do, therefore, is imagine relatively small, closed, sections of society, and make predictions about them, with reasonable confidence but no certainty, a short distance into the future.